[Oe List ...] 11/30/17, Plum/Spong: Back to the Forties; Spong revisited

Ellie Stock elliestock at aol.com
Thu Nov 30 07:20:43 PST 2017




Back to the Forties
Fred C. Plumer

Well here we go again, friends, facing another Christmas. The big stores are posting huge advertisements, notifying us of major sales, playing Christmas music and of course wherever you go there is a Santa Clause. It has been that way for a couple of weeks. It seems to me that this phenomenon starts earlier every year. I cannot help but wonder what Jesus would say if he returned today and observed the way we celebrate his so-called birthday. He was born poor, was always poor, and spoke primarily to the poor.
Obviously large shopping malls are fighting for every dollar they can find, now primarily for survival as the on-line competition grabs more of the sales every year. Literally hundreds of big store malls have closed in the last few years. CNN Money recently posted a report by Credit Suisse, suggesting that between 20% and 25% of American malls will close within the next five years. That kind of plunge would be unprecedented in the nation’s history. But that does not stop the internet from picking up where the big stores left off. And we cannot avoid it. It is currently impossible to go online for a simple search without contending with Christmas ads, telling us about all of the money we can save by buying more things. And beware, if you click on any of these ads, you are doomed to seeing more and more advertisements about that product, or something similar, every time you go back on your computer.
We are spending more money at Christmas per capita every year accept for 2008-9 which was the lowest point in our modern depression. Consumers say they will spend an average $967.13 this year, according to the annual survey conducted by Prosper Insights & Analytics for the National Retail Federation and released this week. That’s up 3.4 percent from the $935.58 consumers said they would spend when surveyed at the same time last year. That totals somewhere around a trillion dollars consumers will spend for the Christmas season. This occurs in spite of the fact that nearly 40% of our populations is under water-if they had to pay off the credit cards, student and auto loans. The current average credit card debt is approximately $11,000 per household.
We are a consumer society, there is no way of getting around it. And there is no better time to observe it than right now. And the really sad thing is most of the things we buy, will become some form of junk that needs to be disposed of in a few months. And we call Christmas a time for joy, happiness, peace on earth, and good will to all. But if it is such a happy time, why do so many people fall apart during the Christmas season. Mental health professionals refer to the holiday season as the most difficult time of year for them. People just seem to get mentally sicker this time of year.
On top of whatever has caused this run away consumerism, as a progressive Christian, I have some other issues with Christmas. First, why are we celebrating Jesus’ birth on December 25th? We know he was probably born between 6 and 4BCE and we also know he was not born in December. One of the things scholars point to in order to justify a different date is from the book of Luke, Chapter 8. It states “The shepherds were in the fields keeping watch over their sheep.” There were no shepherds in hills of Israel during the winter. There were other reasons but the point is that we do not know when his birthday actually is.
This may have been why the early Christians did not celebrate Jesus’ birthday until the fourth century. Up until that point, the most important holiday on the Christian Calendar was Easter. Then as Christianity began to grow in the Roman world, church leaders had to contend with a popular pagan holiday, commemorating the “birthday of the unconquered sun” (natalis solis invicti)–the Roman name for the winter solstice. At the same time, Mithraism–worship of the ancient Persian god of light–was popular in the Roman army, and the cult held some of its most important rituals on the winter solstice.
It was around this time the Roman Emperor Constantine I converted to Christianity, in 312. He soon sanctioned Christianity, and more than likely instructed church leaders to appropriate the winter-solstice holidays and thereby achieve a more seamless conversion to Christianity for his subjects. So December 25 became the birthday of Jesus Christ. So the fact is, we are celebrating natalis solis invicti, not Jesus’s birth or even Santa Claus’ birth.
And then there are the carols. When I go to a candle light service, which I truly hold dear in my heart, we are sometimes lucky enough to hear a decent sermon. Then we start to sing about the “virgin birth,” or the King of All, Joy to the World, or Silent Night Holy Night, or O Holy Night. Well you get the idea. Yes, I do go now and then, and I have learned to view the words symbolically not literally. I tell myself that this is just a song and some of them still stir something in my soul, even if my head is spinning.
Now do not get me wrong. I love Christmas. My wife thinks I am a “Bah Humbug” kind of guy, but in most of my adult years I have struggled with many of these thoughts. What happened to the birthday of Jesus who was definitely poor and spoke intelligently of ways to survive when poor? What happened to the Jesus, the compassionate one? What happened to a simple Christmas that we have turned into a shopping frenzy? Where is the spirituality of the season or even the day? What happened to the Christmas of my youth? OK, that was a long time ago. I was reared in the early forties and fifties when we were either in a war or were trying to recover from the war. But I remember a very different kind of Christmas.
My earliest memories of Christmas happened a couple of years before WWII came to halt. My father was working at Douglas Aircraft, helping build bombers, and was given a deferment as a result. Although I did not know it, I suppose we were poor, certainly by today’s standards. In the very beginning my parents would wait until Christmas Eve, after we had gone to bed, to decorate the tree. I learned much later in my dad’s life, he had made a deal with a friend at the tree lot to get a “free tree” if he waited until the last day before Christmas.
My brother, sister and I always got one special present and something in our stocking.
Sometimes it was a pair of jeans or possibly a whole outfit, which means we were also gifted with a matching shirt or blouse. We also knew we were going to get some candy in our stocking, along with a couple of tangerines and some nuts. We could not have been happier. But our real Christmas started when we got to my grandparents’ house. This is where my happiest Christmases happened. My mother had two sisters and a brother. She was the oldest of the four, so it seemed like every year there would be another cousin to play with.
The adults had a family rule. Usually at our Thanksgiving dinner, each of the parents in our families would pull a name from a hat, with one of the other family’s name. They were to give that family a gift and that was the only one they would give to the rest of the family for Christmas each year. The kids would get little presents from the families but it was not about gift giving, it was about being together. The gift exchange did not take us very long.

We would have a wonderful meal, clear the tables and sing all of the Christmas carols for at least an hour. Every one of my mom’s family were members of a church, so it was beautiful music, usually sung in two or three parts. We kids would always have a play or a song to sing for the adults. It was delightful and rewarding and I will never forget it. Most of all it was simple, with no stress. I spent every Christmas at my grandparents’ house until I was in my senior year of college. I never wanted to miss it. I still dream of a Christmas like that.

So is there any way to solve my dilemma. OK, I can ignore the incorrect birthdate of Jesus. It is just a day and I just have to give up trying to bend it to my understanding of his birth. Like I said, I actually like celebrating Jesus’ birth. I guess I am just tired of the craziness that seems to go along with it.
I know I am not going to change the way other people celebrate Christmas. But I do not have to spend $967.13 on gifts this year, or contribute to the trillion-dollar total that we will spend as a society. This may be the answer for a few of us but I am still having a hard time with the Jesus we are celebrating. I do not have to get involved with the Christmas chaos. I can avoid shopping malls and the Black Friday specials. Although my wife does most of our Christmas shopping, she does 90 percent of it on-line today. That is one problem solved.
Secondarily, I might feel better if I got more in touch with the historical Jesus as opposed to the Christ of faith. Jesus of Nazareth was born a human and died a human. However, by the second and third centuries we turned him into a god or part of a god. Throughout the centuries, he became a multifaceted icon. He could be a soldier or a pacifist, a teacher or poet, a powerful ruler or servant of the needy. “The historical Jesus has not only been overwhelmed by the theologically inspired Christ, but for all practical purposes has been replaced by a culturally driven image.” (1) Today serious scholars and progressive Christians recognize most of the differences between the Jesus of history and Christ of faith, except around Christmas time.
If we want to look seriously at the story of Jesus of history, we must first let go of the idea he was God or part of the Godhead. Only when we move toward the more real Jesus, can we begin to understand why we celebrate his name every year. Remember Jesus was a prophetic teacher and preacher, and was a man of extraordinary faith. For us to truly understand this, we have to let go of the idea that as God he would have no need for faith. But we have a pretty good idea that Jesus struggled, he doubted and he wept just like the rest of us. And when we begin to understand this, only then can we understand what an incredible thing it was for him, as a moral person, to maintain his deep faith, in spite of his difficult life. Like other Jews of his time, Jesus had to reconcile his faith in a God who promised freedom, while he was experiencing living in a hostile, occupied country. I can celebrate that.
Thirdly, I need to be reminded that Jesus was poor, worked with the poor, preached and taught the poor. He set an example that can be followed today. His incredible faith carried him through some extraordinary times and events. When I was in seminary, in the early 1980s, I worked for a year and a half at the Potrero Hills Neighborhood Center. I was one of two whites, on a staff of over twenty people who worked at this very busy center. We primarily serviced the large black community that lived in the projects nearby. I became literally blind to my color, sometimes to a fault, and every day felt a sense that I was really doing something important and meaningful. I have never felt closer to Jesus.
When I graduated, I was offered fulltime job at that center. I contacted one of my black friends at my seminary and told him I wanted some advice. He had observed me at work at the center, and one time when I taught a class in his mostly Black church. When I asked him what he thought I should do, he asked me if I read Malcom X’s book. I told him yes. Then he proceeded to remind me of the passage when Malcom X was talking to an interviewer. He had been asked about a negative comment Malcom X had made years before. Malcom X then said, “I wish I had told them come do what you can do but when you learn something, go back to your people and teach them what you have learned.” I got his point and proceeded to find another job opportunity. And I did teach what I had learned. There are many opportunities to work with the underprivileged and the poor. I think if I do more of that, Christmas could be more real, more productive and bring me closer to the real Jesus.
And finally, when we celebrate Christmas, we celebrate a very important birth. And no matter what we have done with his story, my guess is young Jesus would have had no idea about his life, what he would achieve, or its ending. But as he evolved and moved through the stages of his life, his faith grew, his wisdom developed, and his absolute trust in whomever he perceived as God, was strengthened. Although he never intended to start a new religion, it happened. As a result we inherited a safer, more loving, and more just society. Now I can celebrate that.
~ Fred C. Plumer, President
Read the essay online here.

About the Author

In 1986 Rev. Plumer was called to the Irvine United Congregational Church in Irvine, CA to lead a UCC new start church, where he remained until he retired in 2004. The church became known throughout the denomination as one of the more exciting and progressive mid-size congregations in the nation.  He served on the Board of Directors of the Southern California Conference of the United Church of Christ (UCC) for five years, and chaired the Commission for Church Development and Evangelism for three of those years.

In 2006 Fred was elected President of ProgressiveChristianity.org (originally called The Center for Progressive Christianity - TCPC) when it’s founder Jim Adams retired. 

As a member of the Executive Council for TCPC he wrote The Study Guide for The 8 Points by which we define: Progressive Christianity.  He has had several articles published on church development, building faith communities and redefining the purpose of the enlightened Christian Church. His book Drink from the Well is an anthology from speeches, articles in eBulletins, and numerous publications that define the progressive Christianity movement as it evolves to meet new challenges in a rapidly changing world.

(1) Rescuing Religion, John Van Hagen, Polebridge Press 2012

Question & Answer
Janet from Adelaide, Australia writes:
Are there parts of the Old Testament that are said to be relevant today and why?
Answer: Bishop John Shelby Spong

Dear Janet,
The question you pose is far too complex to lend itself to a simple yes or no answer. The Old Testament is a library that contains 39 unique and different books. These books were written over a period of perhaps a thousand years. They represent a wide variety of types of literature. Some are descriptions of tribal history. Some are filled with liturgical and ethical injunctions; some are interpreters of history; some are wisdom literature; some are poetry; some are the writings of prophets; some are protest literature. There is no doubt that parts of this body of sacred literature are eternal and therefore relevant to us today. Other parts are so clearly time bound as to be totally irrelevant to our world today. The issue is how does one separate the wheat from the chaff.
The first step is not to impose a literal agenda on this literature that comes from a nation of storytellers. The second is to recognize the time span between the event being described and the description. For example, if Abraham actually was a person of history, he lived about 1850 B.C.E. but the stories about Abraham were not written for at least 800 years. Moses lived around 1250 B.C.E. but everything we know about Moses was written some 300 years later. Third, one should expect the attitudes and knowledge of the past to be reflected in ancient records. So it is that in the Bible women are inferior; women are the property of men; homosexuals are to be executed; slavery is morally possible; sickness is caused by sin; the earth is the center of the universe; God lives above the sky, etc. etc. None of these assumptions do most of us today find either relevant or edifying.
But when Moses escaped his tribal identity and began to see God as a universal presence; when Hosea discovered that he loved his wife even when she had become a prostitute and recognized in that experience the love of God for his wayward nation; when Amos saw justice as the other side of worship and worship as the other side of justice, that book is profound and relevant. The Bible in this way leads us through its very human words to glimpse the reality behind all that is. Those are the moments when we hear the "word of God" in the biblical tradition.
I treasure the Old Testament. I do not read it literally nor should you. I reject much of it as no longer having relevance for my life. But I read it seriously and ask what does this mean? Why was it preserved? Where does this touch life? That is how its insights emerge.
~ John Shelby Spong
Originally published March 10, 2004

Read and Share Online Here
Bishop John Shelby Spong Revisited
Do we have the moral right to choose to die?

Is death a natural and normal part of human life or is it an enemy that we must always seek to defeat? That is an issue being debated today in religious circles, pitting traditional religious groups, most notably the hierarchy of the Roman Catholic Church and leading Protestant Fundamentalists, against the rapidly growing movement of those who seek to secure the option that has been called "death with dignity" or "compassion in dying." Both of these are titles of organizations made up of people who advocate the legalization of physician-assisted suicide. In the state of Oregon this debate has reached the status of becoming an option guaranteed by law. Attorney General John Ashcroft has thus far made two unsuccessful attempts to overturn this decision that was ratified twice by the voters of Oregon. This is interesting behavior for a representative of an administration that claims to stand for the rights of states and consequently for decreasing the power of the federal government. One should not, however, expect consistency in politics. As medical science continues to push back the barriers of finitude and expand the possibilities of longer life, the intensity of this battle is bound to rise and these two vastly different points of view will more and more find themselves on a collision course.
Let me begin this discussion by acknowledging that there is no doubt that, given the way the Judeo-Christian faith story has traditionally been understood, the religious establishment of the western world will normally be opposed to making changes in this arena. The creation story, with which the Bible opens, says that life is the property and gift of God. The decision, therefore, as to how and when a person is to die is not one, this point of view asserts, that any human being can ever take from God's hands. This theme is confirmed again and again throughout the pages of Holy Scripture in the distinct negativity that is expressed toward suicide. So, this religious mentality tells us, physician-assisted suicide can never be defended as a human choice or a human right by Christian people. That is why many religious leaders regard it as an immoral decision that must not only be avoided, but should not even be debated.
As the religious argument develops, the case is made that in the Bible death is defined as God's punishment for human disobedience of the divine will that corrupted the perfect creation. In the ancient, primeval legend of the first human beings, Eve, who was presumably born to immortality, responds to the tempting serpent with these words: "God said that if we eat of the fruit of this tree, we will surely die." Death was contingent on her behavior; it was not her natural destiny. But this story proclaims that she and her husband Adam in fact did eat of this forbidden fruit and, true to God's promise, they lost eternity and entered mortality. From that day to this, says the tradition, the inevitably of death has been the punishment and fate of us all.
Paul, a major architect of the early Christian faith, built on that definition when he wrote in his first Epistle to the Corinthians that death is the "last enemy" to be destroyed. Paul saw the life of Jesus as one who had, on the stage of history, taken on this enemy and defeated it, thus breaking the power of death that had plagued human life from the dawn of creation.
As Christian theology developed, these ancient Hebrew narratives, which Paul viewed as literal events in history, came to be thought of as founding myths or legends, but their hold on truth was still not disputed. The Church almost universally taught that people were born with the stain of Adam and Eve's "original sin," and it was our destiny to endure its consequences. So all were to be victimized by death. That is still today bedrock, traditional Christian thinking.
Christian baptism was developed to wash away the damning stain of 'original sin' into which each newborn infant was born, and thus to enable each baptized Christian to participate in Christ's victory over death. That is why the Church taught for centuries that the unbaptized baby was doomed though all eternity. It was a very effective fear tactic that the Church used to enhance its power. The fourth century theologian Augustine gave this concept of original sin its ultimate power, when he used it to develop what most people still regard as traditional Christian doctrine. The fact that all human beings died was proof to Augustine that all lives were lived in the sin of Adam, with no capacity to save themselves. He then portrayed Jesus as the divine rescue operation, sent from God to accomplish what only God could do. Jesus' death on the cross became the moment when the price of sin was paid, and the story of Jesus' resurrection became the sign that the punishing power of death had, in fact, been broken.
The Eucharist, the Lord's Supper or the Mass became the liturgical re-enactment of this drama of salvation, which had been effected on Good Friday and Easter. Each generation could, in worship, newly appropriate the salvation that God had wrought. It was a neat and consistent system and it gave order to western religion for almost 2000 years. It has only one major problem, but it is of such magnitude that it now renders this whole theological viewpoint both dated and inoperative. This understanding of the origin of evil is simply not true either literally or metaphorically. We were not created perfect; we have rather evolved from lower forms of life. We did not fall into sin; we are rather just not yet fully human. We do not need to be rescued from a fall that never happened, nor can we be restored to a status we have never possessed. Life is naturally mortal. Immortality is not something that human beings have lost. The unique thing about human life is that we live in the constant knowledge that it is our natural destiny to die. If Christianity is going to survive in a generation with a very different consciousness, it must address these key issues.
Today, it is easy for us to understand how ancient people related to the ever-present specter of death. It was a constant reality. No one seemed to die in his or her old age. Death always seemed premature whether it came in battle or by way of sickness. In a world that knew nothing of germs or tumors, death was always interpreted as a punishing visitation from God. Sickness was treated in those days with prayers and sacrifices to appease an angry Deity.
It is hard for us to step into these presuppositions of our ancestors; so profoundly different is our understanding of the world. Slowly over the centuries, sickness and disease have been both demystified and secularized. If germs cause sickness, antibiotics are developed to counter the germs. If tumors grow abnormally in our bodies, we discover them with x-rays or MRIs, then we shrink them with radiation, treat them with chemotherapy or excise them with surgery. If our blood becomes infected, we transfuse the whole system or cleanse that blood outside the body. If kidneys fail, we hook the body up to a dialysis machine to do their work.
In these processes we have pushed death not out of life but at least to the edge of life, where we might look at it with more objectivity than our ancestors were able to do. The result is a radical transformation in the way modern people think of death and this has tempered our long-standing obsession with and fear of death.
The first conclusion we have to draw is that St. Paul was surely wrong about death. Death is not an enemy, not even the last enemy. Death is an inevitable part of life and even of creation, which is called good. It is not the first time, nor the only time, that Paul has been declared wrong although those, who have turned the Bible into a semi-divine inerrant book, are always bothered and defensive about such charges. Nonetheless, in the western world today, it is widely assumed that Paul was wrong about women and wrong about homosexuality. He is also now seen as wrong about death being punishment and thus the final enemy to be defeated. Death is in fact the power that gives life its urgency, its ultimate meaning. It is a natural and normal part of the life cycle that must be embraced as a friend not resisted as an enemy. As the shadow side of life, death walks with us from the moment we are born. Death pressures life, making it imperative that we not postpone saying "I love you," or fail to rush to heal a broken relationship. It urges us to struggle now, not tomorrow, to build a better world. Death rings the bell on all our procrastination. It keeps life from being what someone called "an endless game of shuffleboard."
We rejoice when medicine pushes back the domain of death and expands the length and quality of our days. When the skills of modern medicine, however, reach the edges of their competence, they cease this noble task and begin only to postpone the inevitability of our natural dying. That is a very different reality. It is this reality that makes it necessary to face radically new choices and to make radically different decisions. This is the frontier that modern men and women are now confronting, and it is the source of the tension in the current religious debate.
When life meets its ultimate limits and is threatened with a choice between unbearable pain and a meaningless state of existence, it should be, I believe, the patient's choice to embrace death by directing the doctors to end that existence. Those of us, who have taken from the hand and mind of God the power to expand life's boundaries so dramatically, must now also discover the appropriateness of taking from God's hand the right to decide how and when we will die. It is a salute to life's beauty; a tribute to life's sacredness, and that makes it, in my mind, a profoundly ethical decision. It is a decision based on the definition of life as holy, while still taking seriously the new consciousness to which human life is only now awakening. The right to end one's life with dignity and with appropriate medical assistance is still a minority opinion opposed by most religious systems. However, I believe it is destined to become a majority opinion that will be embraced by the people of God, newly emancipated from fear. I welcome it.
~ John Shelby Spong
Originally published October 6, 2004

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